Countdown to Camp: Cutler, Martz hold the keys to the season

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This is Part 1 of the 10-part position analysis leading up to the start of the Bears’ 2010 training camp in Bourbonnais.

If you thought Jay Cutler had the weight of the world on his shoulders last year entering his first training camp with the Bears as he was anointed the long-awaited franchise quarterback, just wait until he steps on the field in Bourbonnais this year.

Expectations were high for Cutler following his Pro Bowl season with the Broncos after the Bears made the biggest splash of last year’s off-season by acquiring him in an April trade. Having long been a position of instability, quarterback was finally supposed to be one of strength.

However, behind a poor offensive line, with a lackluster run game, and aided by an inexperienced receiving corps, Cutler failed miserably to live up to the enormous expectations thrust upon him as he led the league in interceptions and couldn’t come close to the numbers he put up the year before in Denver.

Rather than temper enthusiasm for him, Bears fans may have even greater anticipation for this year’s ball club and, yes, higher expectations for Cutler with the addition of offensive guru Mike Martz. Martz orchestrated one of the greatest offenses of this generation with the St. Louis Rams from 1999-2005. Dubbed “The Greatest Show on Turf,” Martz’ offenses put up incredible numbers en route to a Super Bowl XXXIV championship and Super Bowl XXXVI appearance.

While the Bears don’t have nearly the same offensive firepower that those Rams teams exhibited, they do have a quarterback in Cutler whose tools and talents exceed what Kurt Warner possessed in St. Louis. Martz said he was excited about the opportunity to work with a player like Cutler and through minicamp and OTAs, he’s been pleased with the progress Cutler has made.

The most difficult adjustment Cutler has had to make while learning Martz’s offense — aside from mastering the sheer volume of the playbook — is throwing the ball to a spot instead of to a player. To launch a pass in such a manner requires a leap of faith. Cutler must trust his receivers to be in the right spot and run the correct pattern. It demands good timing between he and his receivers and anything less than near-flawless execution will result in a greater chance of interceptions. What we could see from this increased risk taking is as many, if not more interceptions from Cutler than he threw last year. The other side of that equation, though, is more completions, more touchdown passes, and a lot more yards.

Behind Cutler, the Bears have a couple young, talented prospects who have desirable physical abilities but hardly give fans — nor Martz — confidence should the worst happen and Cutler sustains an injury.

The Bears had enough confidence in Cutler’s durability as well as the progress of backup Caleb Hanie that they elected to keep just two quarterbacks on the active roster in 2009. The Bears carried a third option, Brett Basanez, on the practice squad, but parted ways with him this off-season after selecting Central Michigan’s Dan LeFevour in the sixth round of the 2010 draft.

Martz issued a backhanded compliment to Hanie earlier this off-season when he said, “Caleb is going to be a good player but you really don’t know. … It would make us all feel a little easier with a veteran because you just never know.” The Bears didn’t give LeFevour much practice because there’s still too much for Cutler and Hanie to learn. Besides, LeFevour had to spend more time learning proper fundamentals such as taking a snap from center after spending his career in a spread offense.

Chances are that if Cutler goes down with a serious injury, the Bears’ season will be over anyway. But if it’s a minor injury that only keeps Cutler out for a few weeks, I agree with Martz that having a veteran backup with experience could mean the difference between a playoff appearance or staying at home for the winter. In that win-or-go-home situation, I’d feel a lot more comfortable handing the reigns of the offense to a skilled veteran than to Hanie.

There’s no suspense as to what the Bears are going to do offensively this year, rather it’s who’s going to be hauling in Cutler’s passes. Martz has never been one to utilize the run much in his offenses as he prefers short, quick passes in normal, run situations. As such, the 2010 season will hinge on No. 6’s ability to adapt to Martz’s offense and also what kind of working relationship the two cerebral men will have. Can Cutler adjust to throwing the ball to a spot on the field as opposed to holding the ball an extra few seconds and relying on his cannon to thread the pass between defenders?

That probably will be the biggest question mark, at least offensively, as the Bears hit the field for training camp. Many anxious Bears fans will be waiting to see the answer.

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